Partnering with Latin American civil society to make an impact


Gastón Chillier


A few weeks ago, the latest edition of The State of Global Giving by U.S. Foundations was released. The report reveals that global giving by U.S. foundations increased by 29 per cent from 2011 to 2015, with international giving reaching an all-time high of $9.3 billion in 2015. Latin America, however, did not benefit substantially from that generosity. The region received just 7.7 per cent of international grant dollars in that five-year period and data shows a slowdown in funding since 2013. According to the report, with the exception of Mexico in the No. 5 position (receiving $782.8 million, which accounts for 29 per cent of funding for the region), no other Latin American country is included in the top ten list of recipients by geographic focus. Could this disappointing news be a reflection of the ‘middle-income trap’?

Latin America and the Caribbean is a region composed mainly of middle-income countries (based on income per capita), a criterion used to prioritize the allocation of official development assistance (ODA) but also taken into account by many private funders to guide their grant-making decisions, including U.S. foundations. Some LAC countries have moved into the high-income category in recent years, or are on the path towards becoming high-income countries. However, according to research by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), none of the countries in the region would be classified as ‘high income’ if the wealthiest 1 per cent of the population were removed from calculations.

Even though important progress was made by countries between 2000 and 2015, Latin America continues to be the most unequal region in the world, with inequality alluding not only to means, income or property, but also to the exercise of rights, the development of capacities and autonomies, as well as gender, racial, ethnic and territorial disparities, among others. Notwithstanding their position in the DAC List of ODA recipients, Latin American countries still face major challenges. According to the report on Global Giving, this appears to have gone unnoticed by U.S. philanthropy.

In this context, I would make the case that attaching more importance to Latin America is not only necessary, if increasing equality is what moves funders; it also represents an opportunity to make a difference for U.S. grant-makers working internationally today. The comparative advantage of cooperating with middle-income countries is that they generally have suitably strong institutions and vibrant civil societies, which provide a solid base for promoting sustainable change and assurance that funders’ money will be allocated appropriately by experienced, professional organizations.

The most recent and powerful example of this vibrancy in Latin America is the feminist movement’s fight for gender equality. At a time when human rights are under threat across the globe, the social mobilizations that began with the Ni Una Menos (‘Not One Woman Less’) movement in Argentina in 2015 have spread to other parts of the world. This year’s historic legislative debate in Argentina over legalizing abortion galvanized activists in countries such as Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru and Venezuela. The feminist movement’s new, vital role in the region has an impact that far exceeds the specific issues addressed, fuelling changes in the political system and in society as a whole.

This is not the first time that Latin America has taken to the streets to demand more democratic laws and institutions and to confront the interests of those who seek to uphold the status quo – and it will surely not be the last. U.S. philanthropy would do well to bear that in mind.

Gastón Chillier is executive director of the Center for Legal and Social Studies

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